Transcript of Masters on ESPN Media Conference Call

Golf

Transcript of Masters on ESPN Media Conference Call

ESPN golf analysts Andy North and Curtis Strange and host Scott Van Pelt participated in a media conference call today to discuss next week’s Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club. For the 17th year, ESPN will have live telecasts of the first two rounds at 3 p.m. ET on Thursday and Friday, April 11-12, along with the lead-in program Welcome to the Masters at 1 p.m. each day. Preview shows and special feeds will be available on ESPN+. ESPN and ESPN+ also will air the Masters Par 3 Contest on Wednesday, April 10. ESPN will have extensive coverage on SportsCenter, ESPN.com and other ESPN platforms.

A transcript of the conference call follows:

CURTIS STRANGE: It’s the same for me every year. It’s an exciting week, so many storylines, being the first major of the year.

It’s exciting for me this year because it’s going to be without a doubt the best field of the year. We’re going to have four or five or six other players from the other tour playing that I’ve missed watch playing. I want to watch them play. That’s exciting for me.

We have another tremendous field on a great golf course, historical. Just such a traditional place that we all love going.

As I say every year, Augusta is exciting. It never disappoints for anyone, I don’t care how many times you’ve been there. You see the greats of the game. Of course we still miss Arnie, but we see Gary and Tom and Jack there and the others. It’s always a week that I can’t wait to get there. I can’t get there early enough.

THE MODERATOR: Andy North, by the way, is in his 32nd year at ESPN now. He started with us in 1992. Andy, what are your thoughts leading into next week?

ANDY NORTH: First of all, it’s a pleasure to be able to go there every year. We talk so much about it. In this part of the country, it’s a rite of spring like, oh, my gosh, the golf season’s started.

Well, we’ve had a really interesting spring here where we’ve had a lot of golf courses open the last three or four weeks, so there’s been good days. We’re supposed to get five to eight inches of snow this afternoon, so welcome to spring in the Midwest.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to getting out of here and getting down there. To echo some of what Curtis said, it’s going to be great to see all these great players together. That’s what we want to see as fans and as broadcasters, to be able to get the best against the best.

We had a great opportunity to watch that last night in women’s basketball. So I think I look forward to seeing Jon Rahm and Koepka, some of these guys, see how they’re playing.

Kind of an overview of what I think, I think this is — so many of the years coming into this week, we talk about all the great players playing well and we’re really looking forward to what’s going to happen. This is an interesting year that there’s a lot of the name guys that haven’t had great years so far this year. So can they get it together and start playing at the level that you want them, expect them to play at?

You look at Scheffler, Clark, Schauffele, these are the guys who have really been playing some good golf, but it’s hard to name some of the other big names who have been playing well so far in 2024. So I think this is a great opportunity for them to get their act together and go do their thing.

SCOTT VAN PELT: Just going back, as Andy and Curtis alluded to, and everybody on our call as well, where it’s getting back, seeing people. I’ve been doing this now for longer than I can even fathom. You have friends that you know there, friends in the game, people that you see once a year. Renewing the friendships and the acquaintances, it’s a joy.

The event really, I think, is — THE PLAYERS really kicks it off now. I think golf, the schedule really makes a ton of sense with a massive event, a tentpole event in March with THE PLAYERS and Scottie obviously getting things sorted out. Then you have April, May, June, July where you have an enormous event, but there’s nothing, as everyone knows, like Augusta because there’s no place like it.

Everybody’s on their best behavior. Everybody’s in a good mood. You start looking at your apps, what’s the weather like? Maybe a little rain on Thursday, but I’m not going to worry too much about it. We’ve got umbrellas, and we’ve got jackets, and we’ll figure it out. So all of that.

I was curious, first of all, what you think of Ludvig Åberg going to the Masters as a rookie, a first-timer.

ANDY NORTH: I’ll be happy to jump in there. I had a chance in Hawaii to walk around and watch him play a bunch. I think this is our next superstar. I’m so impressed with him. I love the way he plays the game. I love the way he attacks it. Doesn’t fiddle around much. Just gets up and hits it and plays golf.

I’m really looking forward to seeing what he does this week. I think Augusta National could be a great place for him.

Yeah, he’s a young guy and hasn’t played there much, but I think that he’s got a chance to have a great week.

CURTIS STRANGE: I love that you brought him up first. He’s my dark horse. In the last week, some of my researchers at ESPN said how can he be a dark horse? I said, well, he’s never played in a major before.

He’s only 24. He’s come on the scene so quickly. He dominated the college scene. He’s dominated whenever he’s played throughout his whole life, which is very short. He has a swing to envy. He has the size. Looks like the perfect physique to play this game.

Andy, it looks like he has such a mentality, a way about him that can last years and years. He’s not going to wear himself out with living and dying with every move that he makes, rightly or wrongly. I just think the world of his game, and we have a couple of guys like that now on TOUR.

As Andy said, he’s a rookie, so there’s only one rookie to ever win there. But he certainly could play well, and if we won there, it wouldn’t surprise anybody, I don’t think.

SCOTT VAN PELT: I want to say for the record that Curtis has picked the 9th ranked player in the world as his dark horse. Out there on a really, really wiggly limb.

He’s awesome. Everything they said is true. His demeanor is the thing I like the best. He just seems totally unflappable, which I guess you’d be if you whacked the thing 330 down the middle all the time. He can go, man.

Is the Masters and even the other majors even more important now because it’s the only time we see the top LIV players in important tournaments?

SCOTT VAN PELT: Yes.

CURTIS STRANGE: Yes.

ANDY NORTH: Absolutely.

SCOTT VAN PELT: It creates an excitement that — and I don’t know how much people are going to ask about it, and I don’t think any of us know any more than anybody else does, who knows what’s going to happen, who knows with any of that, but we know for a fact that next week we get everyone together, including the reigning champion, and we know we’ll do it in Louisville, right?

The majors have always been the most important weeks of the year, but now more so than ever, it’s your opportunity, the only opportunities you know you’re going to get. It just elevates what the level of anticipation is.

CURTIS STRANGE: Let’s back up for a moment. It’s really historically the only four weeks of the year that have had the best players from around the world play against each other. It just never happens. It’s the nature of the TOUR.

Even back — Andy’s older than I am, but when I came out and Arnold was still playing a little bit and Jack was playing all the time, it never happened. It just happened certain weeks of the year, and the four weeks that it was always going to happen were the four majors.

All this talk now about we want to get 12, 14 times on the PGA TOUR the best players in the world playing together, it’s never going to happen. I don’t care what size the purses are. I don’t care how many points you get. It’s never going to happen because of the situation we have in golf right now, and it really never did happen before except for the four weeks of the year.

ANDY NORTH: I wholly agree that that’s why winning major championships is so important. That’s why guys care so much about winning because you know you’ve beaten the best players. To win some offsite event is awesome to win, but to be able to beat Jack or beat Curtis or beat whomever coming down the stretch is a big deal, and that means a lot.

First one quickly to SVP. They announced last week the 8th hole of the par-3 course — well, the entire par-3 course will be in the new Masters video game. As somebody who has said many times that that is your favorite spot on the property, how cool was that to hear that you can on Christmas play that par-3 course?

SCOTT VAN PELT: I love that people that haven’t had a chance to stand there will have the chance to virtually stand there. As you know, we talked about it, it’s a little spot that I go every year, every day on the way over to the Butler cabin on the way on the property.

As Andy’s talked about, they’re getting five to eight inches of snow in Wisconsin, which is actually funny. You haven’t had snow all year, and you get snow in April. Just the idea that you could virtually be in that little spot, I’d be interested to see what it looks like. I can close my eyes right now and tell you every blade of grass, I’ve stood there so much. It’s just a neat thing to be able to do.

For Curtis and Andy, the only modification they formally announced this year is moving the 2nd hole ten yards back and to the left. Now, they can do whatever they want for whatever reason, do either of you see any golf reason to move that ten yards back and to the left, that tee shot?

ANDY NORTH: I think personally it creates a little bit sharper dogleg, so you’re going to have to turn the ball a little bit more right to left. I think it gives the players an option, as we’ve seen a little bit over the years, where players may layup to that bunker on top of the hill and they still have the length to knock it on that green. It has to do with a fairway metal versus a 3 or 4 or 5-iron.

I think they’re trying to test the players the best they can, and I think moving it to the left will change the angle enough that guys will have to be careful curving it around the corner without catching that in some of those overhanging trees.

CURTIS STRANGE: I agree. I don’t think it’s going to affect — well, I haven’t seen it yet, so I really can’t say that. The length will mean nothing. The angle will mean a little bit. They still, as Andy just said, they still all have the length, even if they layup to the bunker, to put it on in two.

It’s just going to make them think a little bit more. That’s all, I think.

Just going back 12 months, what do you think the galvanizing effect was on the Masters last year with what was going on in the game at the time? And obviously 12 months on, we’ve got Jon Rahm going back as the defending champion as a LIV player. What’s your take on what this event can do for the game?

ANDY NORTH: I’ll jump in. I think that, one, we kind of touched on it the fact that we get all these players here. I was really pleased when the Masters gave Joaquin Niemann a spot, very, very well deserved. He probably has played better than any of the other players over there.

To get Rahm and Koepka and these guys here to play on the same golf course at the same time as everybody else, I think is really important for our game. And I think kudos to Augusta for really trying to make that happen.

SCOTT VAN PELT: I think for Rahm winning last year was so, so impressive. The man started with a double and didn’t look back and chased down Koepka. It was an odd year just weather-wise, just the timing, and how we recall this is a four-act play over the course of four days, but there were the fits and starts due to the weather.

You’re trying to keep the story lines separate, but then in the end the story line that was singular was Jon. We got a couple of multiple major champions. One is great. Two is really something special. To have done it the way he did it at Torrey Pines and here, I just feel like he stamped himself as exactly what everyone in the game knows he is.

Now he comes back on a different tour after, of course, he pledged his fealty, this and that, I feel like those story lines are softening. Even Rory, who’s been the most staunch advocate of us versus them, now it’s like, oh, what are you going to do? It feels quite a bit different in that regard.

So I think Jon coming back as the reigning champion, the Champions Dinner, and all of that — I don’t know. That whole battle doesn’t hold a great deal of intrigue to me just because I don’t feel like it’s the war it once was.

I think that will be interesting as well to see everyone together in that sense, right? All playing the same event, which as I said earlier, I feel like is, along with THE PLAYERS, a real launch point, an important spring for the game, just to remind everybody that, when we all get together, what the possibilities are.

On Jon Rahm, are you slightly concerned he’s not going to have played nearly as much as he did in the last year, for example?

CURTIS STRANGE: That’s a good question because I came in here last year thinking the same thing about all of the LIV players, the ones that potentially could win, and they proved me wrong. Two or three of them played really well. So I don’t think that’s a point anymore. I think we’re all a little fatigued on all this mess.

I think the beauty of this week or next week is that we’re all coming together playing at a place that is not discussed in any monetary value at all. It’s about history and your name in the game, which is what we all want to happen eventually again.

I expect Rahm to be ready to go. I think, because of what Rahm’s been through a little bit the last year, going over there, he might feel that he has a little bit more to prove. Why do I say that? I really don’t know. He really hasn’t been around his mates as often last year, but he’s incredibly talented, great champion at the Masters. There’s no reason why he couldn’t be champion there again this year.

Curtis and Andy, in watching tournaments on television the last couple of weeks — and we’ve all seen this happen. Players are in contention, and they’re playing the last two or three holes, and all of a sudden, instead of hitting a shot where they want to, vroom, they hook something into the trees or push something into the water. What is it in your body when you’re in that kind of pressure that makes you hit a shot that you ordinarily wouldn’t hit?

CURTIS STRANGE: Nerves (laughter).

ANDY NORTH: If we had a great answer for that, we wouldn’t be talking to you right now.

I wouldn’t say you’re going to fix it. Is it adrenaline? Does your body just start tingling all over?

ANDY NORTH: So much has been said over the years about how experience in those circumstances is so important. It’s not so much the shot itself, it’s understanding how your body is going to react under that. A lot of players get moving faster than they need to move. Some people get so amped up that they can’t control how far it’s going to go. All that’s a big part of experience and understanding how your body and how your mind’s going to work in those situations.

That’s why the best of the best handle it the best. You go back and look at how many tournaments did Jack give away? How many tournaments did Tiger give away? Not very many because they understood how to control themselves in those circumstances better.

CURTIS STRANGE: I can’t add anything else to that. It was perfect.

Do you only get that by having the experience time after time after time?

ANDY NORTH: I think you talk about trying to keep learning in this game and try to understand. So often you have to fail before you figure it out. Very few can come right out and have it work beautifully.

Tom Watson is an unbelievable example. You go back to his first three or four years in his career, he gave an awful lot of tournaments away, but once he figured it out, he didn’t give many away after that.

Sometimes it takes longer, but it takes time for every single player to figure that out, and some never do.

CURTIS STRANGE: Everybody goes through that, some longer than others. But everybody goes through that, even those who are very successful early on. As they progress, they’re still learning how to improve in that situation and how their body reacts and how the mind reacts to the body.

That’s why we get balls hit into the water on 12 and somebody’s got a chance to do something.

CURTIS STRANGE: Exactly. You know, when the flag sits back right — let’s take Freddie Couples for instance, when it stayed up. You know where the ball has to go, and you have to be disciplined enough to hit it at the middle of the green or left of the hole. But the body says the flag’s over there and you hang on a little bit — pressure makes you think like that, situational.

It’s about discipline and playing the game the way you know it’s supposed to be played on paper in that situation. It’s a funny game in that regard.

Peter Malnati, talk about delayed gratification, the guy is 36 years old, he’s finally in the Masters with that recent win. When you wait for something that long, to me that says a lot for the guy. He’s got so many young kids. What do you think about him as a Masters rookie and that story line?

ANDY NORTH: I’ll jump in. First of all, I think it’s really amazing that he’s played as well the last month or so as he has with all that’s been on his plate sitting on the board. I think that is a huge kudos to what he’s all about and how hard he’s worked to get here.

To see a guy go through the process for so many years and finally get to a dream scenario is really, really special. Can he compete this week and can he contend? He’s been playing some nice golf. Obviously won at Valspar a couple of weeks ago on a golf course that has a lot of elevation changes, and you have to hit some of the same kinds of shots you hit at Augusta.

I think he’s a good putter. He’s proven that over the years. He’s not exceptionally long, and his greens hit in regulation aren’t superb at this point in time. I think it’s a long shot for him to go out and win in his first trip around there, but at the same time, you never know. I give him an awful lot of credit for what he’s accomplished.

CURTIS STRANGE: Yeah, I congratulate him. I watched some of that, and his second TOUR win, he’s missed more cuts than he’s made. He’s hung in there.

I think his most important role right now, other than to his family and putting three squares on the table every night, every day, is his role on the board. He’s well respected enough on TOUR to be nominated and elected to this board, one of the six player-directors. The rest of them are great players. Peter, maybe not in the great category.

But what he’s going to contribute to this board with his perspective, admitting that we’ve gone too far with the players. He thinks the players have gone too far with having control versus management. I like that. He’s given really a good perspective from my way of thinking that I admire him a great deal.

I think he’s been a great attribute to the TOUR in the last year or two.

SCOTT VAN PELT: Here’s the coolest thing about it. He was invited to go there when he was a kid. He didn’t go. He was invited to go there and play when he was on TOUR. He didn’t go. He wanted to earn his way, and then he did.

The emotion you saw at Valspar, there’s obviously a lot baked into that. It’s all of the things that Curtis and Andy are talking about. It’s about being a dad. It’s about delayed gratification, you mentioned. Now he’s earned it, and it’s like I get to go.

I’m dating myself. I go back to the mid-90s. I’m at the Golf Channel. Scott McCarron won in New Orleans. In the interview afterwards, he said the first thing he thought of is I get to go to Augusta. Malnati’s first win didn’t get him that invite. I think one of the coolest things that TOUR wins have associated with them is that giant gold ring. You get to go to Augusta.

And now Malnati, who didn’t go and didn’t go play, earns the right to go play. Whether he wins or not, I don’t want to say it’s irrelevant because that’s disrespectful, but no matter what he does, it makes no difference because this was an earned invite. That’s one of the charms of this event, in my opinion.

Kind of touching on what was just said, what do you think the odds there will be a first time major winner in a year we’ve seen so many first time PGA TOUR winners?

SCOTT VAN PELT: It’s been the trend, hasn’t it? The problem for — I shouldn’t say the problem. The challenge of it being this one is there’s just too many people that play well on this golf course who have already done it. You’re going to have to claw your way past all of these people who played awesome there through the years.

Andy, how many times are you and me sitting there talking about this guy? Phil Mickelson shows up and just the light comes on because he knows how to play this golf course. Hell, Freddie into his mid-50s and 60s — there’s so many people who played great there because they all feel the same way we do when we get there, and there’s so many people whose talents fit perfectly on that golf course.

The trend this year has been, as you say, first-timers. I wouldn’t put much of Andy’s pile of money on a first-timer just because the challenge on this particular week on this particular course is just too steep.

ANDY NORTH: We talked about it a little bit about playing the right shot at the 12th hole. You can see it on TV. You can talk to players about it. But until you have to hit that shot under pressure on a Saturday or Sunday and it’s the first time you’ve experienced that, it’s a different world.

The experience around that golf course, there’s a lot of players that it takes years for them to figure it out. It’s hard to do that in three to four practice rounds.

If there was one guy that you have to pick, we mentioned his name earlier, and it’s Ludvig. This guy is an amazing talent, but still he’s a rookie. And he’s going around there for the first time, and you’re going to make some mistakes there that you might not make five or six years later.

CURTIS STRANGE: It just comes down, from a player’s perspective, it’s a different golf course. There’s a lot of local knowledge to play here. The tee shot is important, but it’s a second shot golf course, where to hit it, where to miss it, and then if you do miss it.

It’s a learned experience, and it takes a few years, yes.

The only other thing I’d add, do you think if a LIV player wins the Masters, it would have any effect on the consummation of the PGA TOUR feel, or does it even matter anymore?

CURTIS STRANGE: No.

ANDY NORTH: I agree with Curtis. I don’t think it makes any difference at this point.

Thanks so much for taking the time. One thing I’m fascinated with is 25 guys in this week’s Texas Open are playing and then skipping out over to Augusta right after that. One of them is Rory McIlroy, and that’s one name we haven’t really discussed yet. What do you guys think of Rory this week, and do you think him playing more often in 2024 will help his chances at Augusta?

ANDY NORTH: I’ll be happy to jump in there. I happened to walk with Rory the last three rounds at THE PLAYERS. His iron play this year has not been anywhere near to his standard. He had a great day with his irons on Thursday that week, and he thought he’d gotten over the hump. He’d struggled all year long with it.

That’s concerning to me only — and I think that’s one of the reasons he’s playing this week. He wants to see if what he’s been working on the past couple weeks is what he wants to do.

But to win at Augusta, you go back and look at the winners, everybody talks about putting and driving length and all that kind of stuff. Who hits the most greens has a great chance to win.

You go back and look at Tiger’s win, I think he was No. 1 in greens hit every single one of those years he won. You look at a guy like Scottie Scheffler, who is such a good iron player, you can’t imagine him not having a great chance to win at Augusta.

Rory, on the other hand, his iron play has really, really been below average at best this year. He doesn’t have a top 15 finish yet this year.

So coming in there, seeing what he’s got this week is probably really important to him to go out there and get it around and see if he can hit some shots he really wants to hit.

CURTIS STRANGE: I’m going to name drop just for a second. I had a chat with Bob Rotella this morning, someone who Rory has been working with for a number of years — I can’t believe I haven’t talked to him in the past. He’s playing this week, as Andy said, to sort out his game, if it needs sorting out. But more importantly, to keep his mind off next week. I like that he’s playing this week.

Bob said the main thing for Rory next week is to stay calm and cool. He had this phrase, Mind has to be stronger than the swing, and I think in Rory’s case that’s exactly right because he does have some baggage coming into here because he knows he could have won here a couple of times but he knows he has the game as well.

So do what you know how to do. Play your own game. Play smart. Play a little more conservative golf here around at Augusta, they’re talking about. Then on Sunday afternoon, if the chips fall, he’ll be in contention.

I think back to — one of the best stories I ever heard was when Claude Harmon was a pro at Winged Foot and the U.S. Open was there. They played a practice round with Hogan. They said, Claude, you have a chance this week if you look at the grass all week long, meaning don’t make eye contact with friends, don’t speak to everybody, look at the grass.

I think that relates to Rory next week. He’s been coming here so long and has so much on his mind, but it’s all about you next week, Rory. It’s all about what you can do, your game, and it’s been the case.

But I think — I don’t know, Andy, do you think he’s coming under the radar a little bit? I don’t ever agree with that, but I do think, if Rory is coming in under the radar a little bit, it could help him.

SCOTT VAN PELT: There’s no such thing as under the radar for him.

CURTIS STRANGE: That’s true too.

SCOTT VAN PELT: Here’s the thing, Curtis. The point, Jack, you make is interesting because you can take any approach where you play or you don’t play. We’ve had years where he’s come in as hot as he can be, and now you come in and he hasn’t played as well.

And thing, in my opinion — you guys know better from the player’s perspective — but just in terms of covering the event, he’s only 34, he’s a young man, but he’s been so good so early that every year you come in — I don’t want to act like he’s dragging some burden, but every year it’s a pebble more on the scale. Every year is another year. Every year it’s like, man, I’m running out of time.

There is a long list. Weiskopf was going to win here. Norman was going to win here. Ernie was going to win here. Duval was going to win here. Davis was going to win here. I’m just talking about the timeout coverage. There’s a long list of people. This course, their game, they’re going to win. Rory McIlroy, absolutely.

Then 36, 37, 38, and you start going, damn, man, like when is it — he’s great. He’s one of the greats of this generation, no question. I just wonder, he’s such a thoughtful guy, and you can spend as much time as you want looking at the grass or whatever else, but Thursday morning you’re going to have to put a peg in the ground and add it up, man.

I think all eyes are always going to be on him, in my opinion, Curtis, because he’s Rory McIlroy, and if he wins it, he gets the slam. So I just think it’s a challenge to figure out how do you thread the needle? And maybe there’s no recipe because it’s hard to win this one.

If he does, everyone’s going to say, well, of course. But if he doesn’t, then you join the list of guys going how the hell did I not win that tournament?

CURTIS STRANGE: He just has to overcome — you know, the past he’s had the one round, whatever. He’s just got to overcome. He’s strong enough to do that. He’s got more talent — you know, you want to just say, hey, just play your game. Just do what you know how to do.

Look at Caitlin (Clark) (Monday) night. She did what she had to do, and there was no baggage, there was no hesitation. Rory has to play like that. Well, I don’t know. He’s just got to get out there and do his thing.

SCOTT VAN PELT: If he makes a bunch of 30-footers, I bet he wins too (laughter).

A couple of Scottie Scheffler queries for whoever wants to take them. First of all, if he just putts adequately, how tough is he going to be to beat? And there have been some rumblings about him assuming some kind of Tiger-esque kind of dominance in the game. How likely is that, and how fair is that?

ANDY NORTH: I think it’s very fair to say. What he’s done — you look at his numbers the past couple years, and he has been dominantly the best ball striker on TOUR. He has not putted as well as he’d like to some weeks. He won THE PLAYERS finishing, I think it was, 36th in putting that week. If you can win big events putting okay, that’s amazing.

He just — if you get past his footwork and the things you see on TV, he’s able to put the club on the ball as well as anybody we’ve had in a while. He’s got a beautiful combination of current generation skills with a lot of old school, grind it out, play shots kind of guy. I think that’s a beautiful combination. I love what he’s doing on the golf course. And obviously first, first, and second his last three starts says an awful lot.

There’s another guy that he’s done it around Augusta, and I don’t see any reason why he can’t do it many more times there.

CURTIS STRANGE: Yeah, I agree. He is dominating physically from tee to green. His stats are wonderful. I think some of that is because he has such great hands for such a big man.

A part of the game that doesn’t get, to me, recognized enough is his pitching and chipping around the greens. It’s phenomenal. But he draws so well. When he draws so well, it sets up his iron game, which is No. 1 on TOUR. It all kind of relates.

He works at it. He doesn’t look like he’s getting too big for his britches. He’s had a good run. He’s doing everything he needs to do leading up to a major championship. He’s on good form. He’s got a good mental about him. It’s all working for Scottie right now.

But let’s just not forget. He’s got four or five other top players in the world that are entered this week that he hasn’t been playing against. No disrespect to Scottie whatsoever, but it’s the facts.

ANDY NORTH: I think to add to that, he has a great understanding of himself. I think the most important thing as a player, and especially a great player, is that you have to know you. He knows himself. He understands himself. He’s not on social media. He doesn’t care about all this other stuff. He doesn’t read all this junk. He just goes out and does what he needs to do, and I think that’s beautiful.

SCOTT VAN PELT: But your question was if he putts adequately. We have so much more intel than we used to have, just in terms of strokes gained, this and that. There’s a reason why his odds are in Tiger territory. They’re as low as anyone’s we’ve seen since Tiger. That’s because the answer to your question, if he putts adequately, he wins.

We come to these events and do all these, who do we think this and that? Andy went to the PLAYERS and said pick Scheffler. We’re like way to go, Andy. Come Sunday, sometimes you don’t have to try so hard. You don’t have to squint so hard to see the answer. It’s just a big bold type in front of your face, Scottie Scheffler. Scottie Scheffler is going to play well at Augusta, the end.

When he does on Sunday and he’s right there with a chance, you’ll go, of course. If he putts well, then he’ll win. It’s really that simple, isn’t it?

ANDY NORTH: It’s like that hot doughnut sign about 1:00 in the morning.

SCOTT VAN PELT: We all know that one.

ANDY NORTH: I think he has such a great understanding of himself, and that’s so important. I think all the great players probably knew themselves better than some of the other players.

Scott, it seems like each year ESPN adds just a little new wrinkle to their Masters coverage and Augusta National expands things just a little bit. I’m curious, if you were to think back to a former version of yourself when you were just starting to cover the Masters for ESPN, what do you think would surprise yourself the most about how in depth you and the network gets to cover the Masters in 2024?

SCOTT VAN PELT: The fact that I get to sit in the Butler cabin would have caused me to have a brain aneurysm and die. The idea that that’s my job responsibility would have incapacitated me, I promise you.

I think more than anything, the way technology allows the sport to be covered, the way our ubiquitous — not out there, but just in life — the ability to be providing content, whether it’s us as a broadcast partner or the app, which I think their app should be every app there is because it serves the user in the way the user wants to be served.

I think that’s probably it. Just the ability to see anything and everything you want immediately. I’m being — and I don’t mean to be silly about it, but I’ll promise you this, every year that I walk in and sit down there with Curtis, it’s just astounding to me that we get to.

My friend Ernie Johnson, we talk all the time about having a get to, not a got to job. This is what we get to do. We’re excited to cover the event, and we’re excited to have the different options on plus and all these different ways that things can be consumed.

I was telling a guy last week about the business of media, whatever media will be five, ten years from now, is it going to be like what I grew up with? No. But whatever it is, we’re going to try to figure it out to try to be at the forefront of how you can serve your consumer and your viewer the best way. I think the Masters is an amazing example of all the ways that that can be done.

That said, we’re not kidding when we say we’ll come on TV at whatever time the club would like us to come on. We come on first with the ceremonial tee balls and stay on all day, we’re there to cover it at the club’s discretion, and we’re excited to cover it the best way we can and try to be the best TV partner we can for Augusta National.

Have you ever tried to lobby to get more coverage beyond just the come on the air at 3:00 p.m. or stay in your lane?

SCOTT VAN PELT: What I just said is sort of — everyone knows that we’re there to cover it however they want. They’re not asking me what time the coverage should start. I’ll be there whatever time we come on.

There’s not a lot you need to do with this. Just slap some powder on my head, and put a mic on, and off we go.

This is a question for Andy and Curtis. One person we haven’t spoken about probably for obvious reasons is Tiger Woods. What are your thoughts about what we can expect from him during the Masters? He would never obviously go just purely to be a ceremonial golfer. He would hate the idea of that. But what can he realistically do next week?

ANDY NORTH: I think the hard thing is we don’t really know. We saw him in L.A. I thought he looked a lot better walking around from that standpoint. Then his back went out on him. We haven’t seen him since.

There’s talk, he’s been playing some golf, he’s been practicing. He’s been doing what he needs to do, but we really don’t know. Is his back okay? Can the rest of his body — we’ve talked so much since the accident about his leg and how hard it is to walk and all these other things, but we really don’t know.

He made a trip in there over the weekend and got a chance to play. To me, it’s always interesting to see what we see out of him. What he’s given us over the last 25 years has been just second to none. It’s been such a joy to be able to watch him.

If he were to say this is the last time he’s going to play, we’ve seen so much greatness out of him, good for him if he wants to walk away. I mean, he doesn’t have to do this for anybody else other than himself, and I think he still wants to prove that he can do it.

I truly believe that having Charlie around has probably helped him through this period of time where he’s been so injured to get him out there and keep playing and practice. How do you turn your kid down if he goes, Dad, let’s go play nine holes. That’s beautiful. I think that’s so neat they’ve had that the last four years.

You know, we don’t know. Would we love to see him come in here and hit a lot of good shots on Thursday and be under par and be in the mix of it? Of course we would. Again, if he shoots 68 or 78 the first day, you wouldn’t be surprised that anything could possibly happen.

CURTIS STRANGE: I’m just glad he’s playing. There was speculation up until the last week or so, couple weeks.

You know, you mentioned ceremonial golfer. When you’re Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer, that’s not a bad thing. People want to watch you play. No matter how you’re playing now, they want to be beside you. They want to shake your hand. They want to watch you.

We sometimes wonder why Arnold kept playing so long, because we wanted to be with him, we wanted to watch him. It didn’t matter what he shot. It didn’t matter about the shots he hit. We just kind of wanted him there, and I think the world thinks the same thing about Tiger.

There’s no doubt he’s going to hit a lot of good shots, and there’s no doubt he’s going to make some putts, but can he sustain that over two, three, four days? As Andy said, that’s a big question mark.

I’m just glad — we talked about watching some of the other players we haven’t seen much in the last year, and I’m glad you brought him up because we haven’t seen much of Tiger. It’s exciting. I know he gets excited going there. It’s all good whenever he plays.

Just a quick follow-up to Curtis, if I could. Do you think it will be a record 25 straight cuts he would make, is that the streak he’s going for? Is that something that’s motivating him to just try and make the cut yet another time to break the record?

CURTIS STRANGE: I’d like to think that’s not the motivating factor behind Tiger Woods because he’s accomplished so much. I think, if he played on the weekend, there would be a satisfaction, yes, absolutely. I got to defer to Andy. Do you agree with that? He hasn’t played but once in how many months now?

ANDY NORTH: I think playing on the weekend would be a win, a win-win. He’s going to tell you that he’s there because he thinks he can win the tournament, but to be realistic, what he’s gone through, you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. What he has to do to get ready to go out and try to play golf every single day is very, very difficult.

Just to get him there and get around for the week and play some good golf and hit some nice shots, I think that would be awesome.

SCOTT VAN PELT: I know you didn’t ask me, but I’ve known Tiger for a long time. At first when you asked that, I shook my head, but the more I thought about it — if you asked him in the press conference, and it will be asked, he’ll tell you he’s there to compete and to win. He means that. That’s not performative.

But I think quietly, alone with his thoughts on Friday, if you said you’ve played well enough to play two more rounds, I would have to think that that is a victory for the reasons they just spelled out.

I’m curious your thoughts, in the last few years golf’s popularity has really taken off, primarily coming out of the pandemic. We’ve seen it in all facets of the game. There’s more attention on the women’s game and some other Tours. As we talked about earlier on the call, this division in golf has created a heightened sense of importance on events like the Masters because we’re finally getting all the best players together in one place. Because of that, do you feel that in some weird way this the division within the sport and the current rivalry between Tours in some ways helps grow the game? And also, are there elements like what some of the players both on TOUR and on LIV have talked about the international aspect, golf is a global game, there’s a lot of fans around the world that want to see it. Do you guys envision the TOUR maybe expanding and playing a little bit more because of everything that’s going on?

SCOTT VAN PELT: I think the majors have always been the majors. I don’t feel any different other than what I said at the very beginning. I think we’re all excited to see the reigning Masters champion play, along with Brooks, who was spectacular in the Masters last year. I think there’s that.

If it creates more excitement, it’s only because it’s for scarcity, you know what I mean? There’s this and there’s that, and there used to be kind of just this, and it creates this sort of, well, now we only get it a little bit. That would be kind of an odd maybe benefit that wasn’t potential.

I think that’s — I started to say — I don’t have a clue what’s going to happen other than, as you say, those battle lines that used to be very much us and them, and now it’s sort of like what are you going to do?

I don’t know if it’s good or bad for the game, but I definitely think it’s good for the Masters when the excitement level is ramped up. It’s already great because it’s the Masters. Now it’s this first chance to see this group and that group on the same golf course in a field that’s already small. But now, as Curtis said earlier, it’s the best field you’ve got because those players that didn’t play THE PLAYERS are here.

CURTIS STRANGE: Let’s not forget, everybody talks about growing the game globally. Golf has been a global game for many, many, many years. Americans have traveled overseas for 30-some years, maybe longer than that. This phrase of growing the game, we do it by putting it on TV, by doing clinics, by getting out, and that’s been done since the start of the game.

The Masters grows the game because kids watch it. You have the Drive, Chip, and Putt early in the week, which has been fantastic. You have the women’s tournament, which has been an absolute home run for the women’s game and for golf in general. Everything they’ve done has turned to — just turned really well, turned well out at the Masters.

So I just don’t get all of this. The Masters is the Masters. That’s enough said. You don’t have to say it’s better than it is because it’s already one of the best.

I know I’m talking to a member of the USGA executive committee and a two-time U.S. Open champion about the golf course, so I know where you come from on liking difficulty. I’m curious if you feel like a lot of the changes we’ve seen over the years, the recent years, has kind of maintained the ebb and flow of the golf course, the ups and downs? I kind of felt like it was really dialed in in the ’80s, Curtis, when you were contending there.

I’m just curious if you feel like they’ve done a good job maintaining that, or has it possibly erred a little on the side of difficulty?

CURTIS STRANGE: I think they’ve done a heck of a job. Maybe they went a little overboard once or twice. They came back at 11 and made 11 a helluva golf hole, better than it was before, in my estimation.

They tweaked the 2nd tee. That’s not really going to affect much of anything. You’ve added length, which everybody has done that and which they’ve had to do because the athleticism of the players and the equipment. They still shoot low scores there.

I think what Augusta has done has been tremendous over the years to keep up with the players and the game.

They’ve made it tough, but they’ve kept it very fair.

ANDY NORTH: I think they’ve done a terrific job of taking the golf course as it was in the ’70s and ’80s and how it played and over time tried to keep the same type of challenge for the players, and they’ve done a better job of that probably than anybody else.

To go back and look at some of the clubs the guys are hitting into some of the holes now are very similar to some of the clubs you may have hit 25 or 30 years ago, and that’s not the case most places. I give them a lot of credit for trying to do the right thing and trying to make it so that the history of that event doesn’t change so dramatically based on how far the guys are hitting the golf ball. I think they’ve done a really fine job of that.

Quick follow-up on that. Last year we were talking about 13, and it ended up there was some concern they may have made it longer to prepare for the future, and it was already relevant last year. It played perfectly basically when the weather was right. Did that surprise you?

ANDY NORTH: No, I thought it needed to be done. I thought what they did was very important to do. The beauty of that hole is, if you can’t drive it all the way around the corner where the corner becomes an important part of that golf hole, and it didn’t for maybe the last ten years, and they brought that back in to give the players an opportunity to drive it in a position to where you have to make a decision. Do I go for it, or do I lay it up? That’s what makes that second shot so hard there when maybe you’re trying to do something you maybe shouldn’t be trying to do.

Unfortunately, both of us on this call have had problems there because of that. I think they were able to get it back to that standard a little bit where you saw some players lay up once in a while. We went years where the only time you laid up is if you hit it in the woods.

Joining from Canada, so I’d like to ask about Nick Taylor. Curtis, I’ll start with you. You’re also a two-time Canadian Open champion. I wanted to ask you about Nick’s victory in Canada last year, what you thought of that, just knowing how important that tournament was to your contemporaries when you would come up here, and if you watched it and what you thought of that tournament.

CURTIS STRANGE: Most exciting shot. It was the shot of the year to me. The putt, being Canadian, at the Canadian Open, knowing how important golf is to everyone up there, I just thought it was tremendous. I jumped off my chair, I know that.

He’s a wonderful player. Think about the pressure playing for all of those people. We as Americans, we might get some of that for the U.S. Open, but it’s special up in Canada. I know, like everybody else, he’s going to be excited to play here. It’s a special week for everyone.

We talked about — you could go on and on. We talk about the players who possibly can win. Of course anybody in the field could possibly win. But we talk about the top players. Well, this week is special for everyone, and it’s special because Nick Taylor’s coming here. He’s going to have the entire country up there watching him this week and rooting for him, and that’s special.

You talk about growing the game. Everybody in the field has a huge audience/support system back home, wherever that is, their town, their city, their state. That’s what I enjoy about it, and everybody here thinks they can come here and play well.

ANDY NORTH: I think if you add to that the fact that Nick’s played some really good golf so far this year. He’s one of the few players, he’s worked his way into the top 25 in World Rankings. He’s gained as many points as most of the players, other than Wyndham Clark and Scottie Scheffler, so far this year in FedEx points. He’s a guy who’s playing some really good golf, and it comes at a really good time for him.

Just on that note, we saw what he did in Phoenix. He made a few birdies coming home —

SCOTT VAN PELT: A few. That was one of the best plays I’ve ever seen. That was insane.

To that point, what he did in Canada, and once upon a time he played Phil Mickelson head to head at Pebble Beach. I wonder how important guts is when it comes to major championships. He’s obviously a guy who’s shown he’s not somebody who wilts when he puts himself in those pressure situations.

CURTIS STRANGE: The more he puts himself in that situation, the better he’s going to be, absolutely. That will make him better for next week. Pretty simple.

ANDY NORTH: I think he’s got that grind quality that coaches talk about, that we talk about, that he can make something out of nothing. He seems to love being in that position. If he continues to do that, he’s going to continue winning golf tournaments.

SCOTT VAN PELT: If I could brag on my colleagues here, they’ve both got a couple of pretty important trophies because of guts. Talent, yeah, but you’d better have the minerals when push comes to shove in a major championship. Those two geezers in the upper right of our screen right now absolutely had them and had a bag full of them.

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Andy Hall

I’m part of a team that handles PR/Communications for SportsCenter, including the SC Featured brand, the E60 program, and ESPN’s news platforms. In addition, I’m the PR contact for ESPN’s Formula 1 coverage and golf majors (the Masters and PGA Championship). I’m based in Daytona Beach, Fla., and have been with ESPN since 2006.
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